Rights group Licadho said in a report on Monday that it had investigated more than 100 cases of obstructions to freedom of assembly and expression over the past two-and-a-half years, and warned that such repression was “all but certain” to continue ahead of next year’s national election.
The report, “The Dangers of Dissent: Attacks on Human Rights Defenders,” describes a slew of attacks on dissenting voices, including repressive legislation against NGOs and political parties; the relocation of Freedom Park, the designated location for demonstrations, to the outskirts of the capital; the hacking of activists and opposition leaders’ online accounts; and violent arrests by authorities.
The report calls for immediate reform.
“In the run-up to this election cycle, the government grew increasingly demonstrative of its willingness to punish any peaceful exercise of rights and freedoms it deems threatening,” it says.
“[T]hose who stood up for human rights faced repressive legislation, unwarranted legal attacks and a crackdown on fundamental freedoms in an attempt to create a climate of fear and silence.”
International groups, diplomats and the U.N. have also condemned a series of legal charges that have been brought against activists and opposition members, the report says.
The legal action—much of it considered politically motivated—began at the start of 2015 and has added up to 20 political prisoners currently languishing in jail, according to Licadho.
Until their unexpected release on bail on Thursday after 427 days of provisional detention, the Adhoc 5, a group of five former and current right workers were among them.
Adhoc employees Ny Sokha, 51, Nay Vanda, 42, Yi Soksan, 54, and Lim Mony, 58, are all accused of bribing the alleged mistress of then-CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha to deny an affair, while former Adhoc employee and National Election Committee official Ny Chakrya, 46, is charged as an accomplice. The group awaits trial on a date yet to be set.
On the same day the group was released, however, the Appeal Court upheld a seven-year prison sentence against opposition senator Hong Sok Hour—whom Licadho lists as a political prisoner—for presenting a doctored border treaty in a video posted to the Facebook page of former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, whose five-year sentence as an accomplice was also upheld.
“This ongoing and multi-faceted crackdown on peaceful assembly and expression removes a legitimate and crucial platform for debate and dissenting ideas, which is particularly dangerous in the pre-election context,” the report says.
“[I]t is all but certain that the government will continue to deny people their freedoms into the national election year ahead.”
The report adds that Licadho has “investigated over one hundred cases of obstruction to freedom of assembly or expression” since the start of 2015.
Cases include “state-sponsored violence” at demonstrations, such as the brutal beating of Licadho’s monitoring manager Am Sam Ath and Boeng Kak community representative Chan Puthisak by Phnom Penh para-police during October’s World Habitat Day celebrations.
The report calls for the release of political prisoners, reforms to the Criminal Code to ensure international human rights standards, and the end to “unwarranted crackdowns on people peacefully exercising their right to freedom of assembly and expression.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan refuted the report’s findings, saying it “does not reflect the fact.”
“Everyone can say anything they like…. Everyone has relative freedom of speech,” he said. “The politician has been in jail because of their illegal activity. It has been solved by the court. If the court cannot find it, they release them.”
“It’s biased,” he said of the Licadho report. “Why don’t you verify their motive?”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, echoed the report’s position that visible political intimidation was only expected to rise in the coming months.
“Going forward from here, Cambodia[n] civil society can expect intimidation and abuse to increase as part of a larger crackdown connected to next year’s national election,” he said.
“The ruling CPP is leaving nothing to chance, and this means that the diplomats and the international community better get ready to push back to help human rights defenders and activists who will be targeted and prosecuted for simply expressing views and holding peaceful assemblies that the government deems hostile to its interests,” he added. “This is going to continue until after next year’s election.”